Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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Friday 01 August, 2008

Economic reform is in the eye of the beholder

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been signed by the leaders of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The politicians are talking, the economy continues to decline at an unimaginable speed and hunger is stalking the nation. On the surface all seems to be quite normal. People who still have jobs are still going to work. Students who can, are going to school or college, while vendors continue to make a quick buck from selling food in short supply at parallel market rates.

Our money has gained so many zeros, I am amazed anyone can still make sense of it. I salute my colleagues in the accounts section and those who work on our electronic accounting system to effect various purchases and payments day-in-day-out. How they can whizz around the zeros is a miracle.

This weekend I bought an imported bottle of red wine at Z$8.5 trillion, which in real money is about US$71 if you use last week's cash rate of $120 billion to the greenback. I also bought several 500ml bottles of mineral water there were no bigger bottles) at Z$1.2 trillion each.

We have had no water for more than a week. There was a time when we took having access to water for granted. Not anymore. I have become quite skilled at bathing myself in miniscule amounts of water. There is water in Zimbabwe but at times there either an inadequate supply of water treatment drugs or there is no power to pump water into our homes.

Negotiations under the MOU for a political settlement started a week ago but we have only now just learnt they have either been abandoned or adjourned, depending on who is speaking. I and colleagues I have spoken to are skeptical about the outcome of the talks. I guess we are realists.

While we wonder what our political future is going to be, the Reserve Bank Governor of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, has just announced that we are dropping 10 zeros from our currency!

Most Zimbabweans, even vendors, had become multi-billionnaires and now they will find their money has been re-denominated. It should make sense,but it does not. The coins that had been abandoned years ago, are once again legal tender. We will now have a $500 note which in real terms is 5 000 000 000 000 (five trillion). This will be the highest new note in circulation. A twenty-five cent coin will be part of the new currency. I am not so sure what it's real value will be.

You want to go shopping after this announcement - I can assure you, it is a mind boggling experience. There is not much to buy from shops anyway. In any case whatever money you have, loses value well before you set off for the shops. Our daily bank withdrawal limit was $100 000 000 000 ($100 Billion) which was just enough for a one way trip to work. From the beginning of August it has been set at $200 which is actually $2 trillion of the old money. You need three trips to the bank to access the equivalent of the highest note (500) now in circulation.

We are going to have to re-configure our lives. Public transport providers will have to re-work their fares and prices in shops will also have to shuffle around this new currency. We are even going to have a $10 coin and $10 note! And we have been told that we can do the switch over from old to new currency at "our own pace" until the end of the year. How very generous! I suppose this means all our problems are solved.

Unless the political situation in Zimbabwe is resolved, all these constant currency reforms will never work. They will remain temporary measures that only serve to prolong the suffering of Zimbabweans. Soon after the Governor of the Reserve Bank announced the new monetary reforms, President Robert Mugabe, who attended the presentation for the first time chided those who want him to step down. He also denounced his usual imagined detractors the leaders of America and Britain. To him it does not matter that Tony Blair no longer leads the British Government. He is still seen as a threat and behind the regime change agenda and so he also got a special mention (attack).

If Mugabe still sees himself as the main and indispensable part of the equation in a new Zimbabwe, what are the so called talks about then? Is he really serious about wanting an end to the political and economic turmoil? The opposition Movement for Democratic Change will either stand their ground and refuse to play the underdog, because they won the first round of the presidential and parliamentary elections, or accept being swallowed like what happened to the former ZAPU, led by the late nationalist Joshua Nkomo.

I am a cynic when it comes to politics so I do not see a happy ending to the talks the MOU gave birth to. It will all end in tears. We have representatives of the two formations of the MDC and ZANU PF talking in a secret venue in Pretoria, South Africa. On the other hand state radio, television and the papers seem to be still running a campaign of sorts for President Mugabe. A month after the June 27 presidential run-off war music is still being played on national radio. Do they know something we don't?

President Mugabe's wife, Grace, has become almost the main political face of ZANU PF. The state media feature her dishing out food handouts and telling people about the "virtues" of ZANU PF. Is she campaigning for her husband or is she building the foundations of her own political career? It might spice up the already hot political scene if it turns out she is aiming for the top job. She has been opening state funded "People's Shops" where goods are sold at way below their true value. She has also been dishing out free food hampers that contain a 2,5kg of sugar, 1kg salt, 2,5kg flour, a 750ml bottle of cooking oil, bath soap, 100ml of toothpaste, vaseline (a paraffin based petroleum body jelly) and a 500g laundry powder soap. When sold in the people's shops, the same hamper costs a paltry $105 billion. That amount cannot buy a loaf of bread.

All these foods are imported under the Government's Basic Commodity Supply Side Intervention (BACOSSI) programme which is bankrolled by the central bank. Our manufacturing industry continues to suffer a severe decline in output. Agriculture is almost non-existent. There is no new tangible investment inspite of all the stories we read in the state media about countries in the Far East expressing interest.

Mad does not even start to describe the everyday decisions of some of our political leaders. It is surreal. The fact that we have been able to survive this madness for seven years must mean we are all well and truly CERTIFIABLE.

There is a sense of pending doom. A sense of something being plotted. President Mugabe is still thanking Zimbabweans for voting for him "overwhelmingly" in advertisements in the state media. This is despite the fact that he won in a one-man race. We still hear advertisements promising us "100% empowerment, and total independence" but all we feel is total impoverishment and a sense of foreboding. And of course, Mugabe believes we have a "real" democracy, but then again, democracy is in the eye of the beholder!

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Monday 28 April, 2008

Firearm imports and broken limbs do not inspire hope

When I tire of my administrative duties I always find that going out on a tour of some of our community development projects rejuvenates me.

Under normal circumstances we would have visited and handed over at least 10 community projects from January to date. This has not happened because the whole country is at a standstill.

A presidential election whose results remain a secret, unless of course we go by what is in the public domain, but is not "legally ours as citizens to know or announce" does not create a conducive environment for the continuation of normal business.

Everytime I go out on a project handover I come back feeling that we actually make a difference to the people who benefit from our partnership with them. My colleagues in the Britain and Zimbabwe Community Partnership Programme do all the groundwork of assessing the viability of projects and how needy the community is. I just go to talk to any press there and enjoy the fruits of my colleagues' work.

On project tours you meet some of the most down to earth and warm Zimbabweans. People who only want to get on with their lives and crave the opportunity to give their children a better future.

Last Saturday I thought of the communities throughout the country who have had boreholes sunk, schools built or received textbooks and just how these same people might be faring with the news filtering in of violence.

Until Saturday, the news was just news. In the morning of that day I visited a friend who had been taken ill and was in a private hospital.

On our our way out a relative of the friend who was with me drew my attention to a young boy who was in the same room as my friend.

The boy was being treated for malaria and had become one of the several people who have been rendered homeless by the political turmoil in the rural areas.

The boy told us how their home in Mudzi, Mashonaland East had been razed and how his mother had managed to keep him and his three siblings together and escaped from the scene. He said they had been accused of being sellouts. They spent two days in the bush, moving on towards Harare when they felt safe to do so.

We soon discovered that there were several middle-aged men and young men with broken limbs. Women had severely bruised thighs and buttocks from the beatings and they all told stories of terror and mayhem.

No one in authority is of course admitting that this is happening. And while this goes on, a vessel carrying an enormous load of dangerous weapons is coasting the sea looking for a "friendly docking" point. The South African Transport Workers' Union saw it off the shores of Durban.

News reports say Mozambique and Tanzania have also refused to accept this valuable cargo. Reports say it is headed for Angola.

The An Yue Jiang has come all the way from China. The people in such great need of this military hardware are of course starving Zimbabweans who also have no drugs in their major hospitals. How very thoughtful!

While this drama is playing out, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, has urged China to; "Play a useful role in Zimbabwe without using firearms." He is also reported to have said he was happy that Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries had denied the ship permission to dock.

We have done community projects in the country's various provinces. It is a part of my job that keeps me fulfilled. It is a part of my job that I will always cherish. Our development agency DFID does sterling work in HIV/AIDS and runs supplementary feeding schemes that have in the past helped save lives.

The joy on the faces of those we assist is what even under very difficult political conditions keeps us going. The glimmer of hope in the eyes of those we help is what makes our jobs worthy.

Weapons and broken limbs will not rebuild this country. Destruction will do nothing for our children's future. Pain and fear have no room in a God-fearing democratic country. We need to restore hope and our dignity.

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